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Engaging All Learners with Primary Sources

By Patricia Baron Carlson, M.Ed., and Rhonda B. Clevenson, Ph.D.

Often teachers adjust the curriculum content, learning process, or student product/learning outcome to address diverse learners' needs (Tomlinson 2001). Primary sources are particularly valuable for differentiating instruction because in addition to the varied complexity, vocabulary, and media forms, primary sources connect to students' lives and capture their natural desire to know and understand the world.

Like our students, primary sources are diverse. While manuscripts, journals, maps, photographs, motion pictures, sound recordings, and artifacts were not created with a specific grade level and curricular subject in mind, these curiosity-provoking fragments of history invite learning that students with diverse reading levels and background knowledge simply can't resist.

Differentiated instruction begins when teachers recognize that variations are needed to engage and challenge all learners in a particular lesson. Assessing what students know is the first step. For example, all students might participate in a preassessment using a primary source image, cartoon, map, document, or quotation. Students respond to the primary source as a means of activating prior knowledge regarding a concept or topic, and as a way to assess knowledge gaps and misconceptions. The teacher uses the responses to inform differentiated instruction through the design of tiered assignments, flexible grouping, re-teaching activities, and independent studies based on the identified student needs. Varying the complexity of curricular content is a natural fit with the use of primary sources.

Differentiating by Content

When a teacher differentiates instruction by content, groups of students complete the same challenging task using different primary sources to provide the information. For example, during an examination of the Great Depression, all students might address the question: What were some of the economic, social, and political effects of the Great Depression on people? Three different primary sources corresponding to students' academic readiness levels could be used to answer this question. These primary sources would demonstrate similar content ideas, but vary in their format and complexity. One group of students could consider Dorothea Lange's photograph, “Migrant agricultural worker's family,” 1936. Another group could listen to and examine Mrs. Mary Sullivan's folksong, “A Traveler's Line,” 1940. A third group could read Nina Boone's oral history manuscript from the 1938 Federal Writer's Project, North Carolina.

Differentiating by Process

When differentiating by process, all students experience the same content through a single primary source, but perform different learning processes. Primary sources can be used to engage students and all may answer the same knowledge and comprehension questions to establish a foundational understanding. Through flexible grouping, whereby students move in and out of groups based upon interest, learning profile, or readiness, groups of students might interact with and respond to the primary source using different modalities or employing varied types of critical thinking. This allows all learners to be challenged, engaged, and successful. For example, when examining, “Marcus Miller and family,” all students would describe what they see in the photograph (knowledge), and compare and contrast their home to the home depicted in the image (comprehension). One group might go on to speculate what the people in the photograph might be saying (analysis and synthesis), while another might explain how the room might be used by the family and why they believe their interpretation to be true (analysis and interpretation). Finally, another group might assess the Great Depression's social and economic impact on the family based upon evidence from the picture, (analysis and evaluation).

Differentiating by Product Choices

If students have analyzed the same primary source content, and experienced the same sense-making or processing activities, teachers can design differentiated product choices. For example, all might study the same set of raw data or primary source oral histories, photographs, maps, folksongs, diaries, broadsides, and land records about the Great Depression. Students might analyze why the Midwest experienced a Dust Bowl during the Depression years, the effect it had on different communities, and assess the local and national response to this crisis. Choices for a response might include an annotated timeline, scrapbook, performance, speech, editorial, or position paper. These measure mastery of defined learning objectives, yet appeal to student preferences, are appropriate for different learners' needs, and are still rigorous for all.

The millions of primary sources that are now available online from cultural institutions provide excellent opportunities for students to explore many types of evidence for comparison and analysis. Students engaged with scenes of a blues singer performing from a porch of a Mississippi shotgun-shack, for example, can look elsewhere online to hear music from that time and place. Or turn to an oral history repository and read what observers said about the music during the Great Depression. Literature, performing arts, geography, folklife, and history can be synthesized in a single exploration that leads to new knowledge.


Working with primary sources can also be useful for students who demonstrate mastery of portions of the regular curriculum and require a well thought out independent study option. When students examine primary sources, they are working like real historians or scientists. Through observation, analysis, interpretation, synthesis and evaluation, students discover clues and integrate new information into their knowledge base. Through this process, students often uncover new theories or findings. Learning with primary sources is part of working like a professional in the field, testing and revising ideas and responding to new information.

With millions of digitized primary sources available from libraries, museums, historical societies, universities and other cultural institutions, students have access to many of the materials that historians work with. They are well poised to create, in many forms, the next generation of historical interpretations.

Primary sources are most often integrated into the social studies classroom, but this raw stuff of history has a place in every discipline. Teachers across subject areas can use primary sources to adjust curriculum content, learning processes, or student products. Indeed, like our students, primary sources are diverse. A wealth of digitized primary sources provides teachers an efficient means to differentiate instruction by creating engaging learning opportunities to meet the unique needs of all students.


Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Dr. Rhonda Clevenson and Patricia Carlson manage the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Northern Virginia Partnership (TPS-NVA) as Program Director and Assistant Program Director, respectively.